Editor's note: Robrt L. Pela writes about the people and places that define the Phoenix area.
Steve Weiss grew up making movies. “There was a whole crop of kids who grew up making movies in Phoenix, he said on a recent Saturday over breakfast at Dark Hall Coffee. “We had this wide expanse of desert and this great natural light. I’d grab Dad’s 8mm camera and off I’d go.”
Weiss shot an anti-war film in 1967 at a burned-out Frank Lloyd Wright ruin at 32nd Street and Stanford Drive. Later he studied photography at San Francisco Art Institute, where one of his professors was famed underground filmmaker George Kuchar.
“I actually appeared in a couple of George’s films,” he recalled.
After college, he worked as a photojournalist and a fine art photographer. He taught landscape photography and black-and-white printing, and took a job as an industrial photographer. Weiss worked for 20 years as a location scout for film and television, and in the 1980s joined a group of local art photographers that including Bill Timmerman and Dan Vermillion.
“So I was spending time in local galleries, Studio Lodo and Modified Arts, and I noticed there were no regular screenings of independent films downtown. You had Harkins and AMC, but nothing independent; no short films.”
Painter Jeff Cochran had been showing short films at his gallery, The Monkey Show. “But by the summer of 2002, I could tell Jeff was getting tired of trying to keep up with finding and booking little films.” Weiss stepped in.
“It was, ‘Let’s try this once and see what happens.’ The second screening, 70 some people showed up. People were standing in the aisles. It was crazy.”
When Cochran closed The Monkey Show, Weiss moved his screenings — which he dubbed No Festival Required — to Modified Arts on Roosevelt Row.
“Back then, we’d borrow a projector on Friday afternoon from ASU, and we’d return it on Monday morning,” he said, shaking his head. Weiss went to Modified owner Kimber Lanning and told her it would be great if they had their own projector. “I don’t know if I can ever help you pay it off,” he admitted, but Lanning bought a projector anyway. No Festival Required was headquartered at Modified for the next six years.
Filmmakers found Weiss on MySpace, then a popular social media platform. “Those early shows, we’d have a piece of canvas strung between two poles. We had people bring their own folding chairs. I’d walk in with a stack of VHS tapes and a player. I was trying to figure out how to get all the movies onto one tape. The air conditioner made the converter flutter. I was trying to get filmmakers to send me two copies of their films, because if it got caught in the machine, we’d lose the film. The technology was so bad. But, man, we had something like 50 people at every screening.”
Weiss hooked up with Leslie Barton, who was running the beloved Paper Heart Gallery on Grand Avenue. Shortly after, Phoenix Art Museum came calling, and offered a regular space in the museum’s 300-seat Whiteman Hall. It wasn’t long before Weiss added Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art to NFR’s lists of home bases.
“We were like a floating craps game,” he said. “We were screening movies in three or four different places at once,” he said, poking at a slice of cranberry bread. “One week, I showed films at a dairy farm in Gilbert. The next week I’d be screening at the museum in Scottsdale. We were at Mesa Arts Center for a little while, too.”
Museums were great, Weiss said, because he could ask for money to pay the filmmakers, a practice dear to both him and Barton. But museum audiences could be tricky, Weiss admitted. “Sometimes our films were a little provocative for a conservative place like a museum. But I had to admit it was fun to watch the heads of the blue hairs spin around while they tried to watch some of our films.”
Weiss is wrapping up a series of screenings at Scottsdale Center for the Arts, after which he plans to launch a new project he’s calling DIY Cinema.
“It’s the GoFundMe of cinema,” he says. “I’ll announce a movie, and if we don’t sell enough tickets, we won’t screen the movie. I need at least 35 people to sign up for each movie, to pay the distributor fee, the filmmaker, and myself.”
It’s a risky concept, Weiss admits. He’s lined up a new venue — the recently opened Walter Station, a renovated firehouse where Weiss will screen movies in the old hook-and-ladder bays — and a date for the first DIY Cinema: March 23.
Ultimately, Weiss says, it’s all variations on the same theme. “I’m still just after a space that’s willing, filmmakers who will work with me, and an audience that wants to see a good movie. The big difference these days is I’m not asking people to bring their own chairs.”